Former Congressman Don Clausen of Santa Rosa died last week at the age of 91. Not many people would remember it, but his entering politics, and his leaving it, tells us much about what has transpired in California and American politics over the past half century.
Don Clausen ran for Congress as a Republican in 1962 in a marginally Republican district running from Marin County to the Oregon border. His opponent was Democratic Rep. Clem Miller, but just before the election Miller was killed in a plane crash. Claussen, the gentleman that he was, stopped campaigning, but Democrats urged a sympathy vote for Miller, and on Election Day the dead Miller bested the live Clausen.
Clausen then entered and won the 1963 special election to replace Miller. It was hardly apparent at the time, but this was the beginning of the way back to power for the California Republican Party. A Republican replaced another Democratic congressman who died later in 1963; in 1964, the GOP picked up the US Senate seat, and then in 1966 along came Ronald Reagan and everything changed. Clausen’s victory was the start.
There were always more Democrats than Republicans in Clausen’s district, and he stayed in office by being a moderate, non-ideological Republican who brought home the bacon, including dams and roads. His best friend in Congress was neighboring Rep. Harold “Bizz” Johnson, the Democratic chairman of the House Public Works Committee.
Republicans had no chance to take the House during those years, because of the solid Democratic South, and while Clausen backed his GOP Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan at the end of his career, he saw no point in being a useless bomb thrower; instead he tried to be productive and work, where he could, with the majority Democrats.
In the late 1970s, Don and Bizz both recognized a problem: Don’s coastal district was becoming more Democratic, while Bizz’s inland district was more Republican. So they made a pact in the 1981 redistricting to trade voters to make each of them safer. But in the Reagan landslide of 1980, Bizz got beat by a Republican, so there was no one to make the deal with Don.
Enter now Rep. Phil Burton, Democrat of San Francisco. Burton was the master at redistricting, and in the past he had helped make all members of the California delegation safe. Clausen trusted Burton; they had neighboring districts and had worked on a number of projects. But Burton went on a gerrymandering rampage in 1981 to increase Democrats in the California delegation, and one of his first victims was Republican Clausen.
Burton drew him a district that was impossible to win and in 1982 Clausen went down to defeat to a young Democratic Assemblyman named Doug Bosco.
Phil Burton’s 1981 gerrymander, his contribution to modern art he called it, was the first truly brutal partisan gerrymander in American history, but not the last. I chuckle when I hear bleating Democrats complain about what the Republicans did to them in Texas – where they only have 11 of 36 congressional districts, or Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan where GOP governors and legislatures have reduced their House membership to almost nothing. Burton taught them how to do it, and if a nice guy like Clausen could be cut out of his district, Republicans in future decades would have no restraint on doing the same thing when they were in power.
Don Clausen was what people say they want in a legislator, a hard worker for his district who got along with the other side. He probably would have lost eventually; the north coast was just becoming too Democratic. But he did not deserve to be gerrymandered out of his seat as Burton did to him. Clausen has a legacy of roads and water projects in his district; Burton’s legacy is that of the great gerrymanderer who taught the Republicans how to do it, so much so that they have now cut and diced enough states to probably assure a GOP House of Representatives forever and ever.